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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Portion Of Labor - Chapter 55
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The Portion Of Labor - Chapter 55 Post by :texan-in-oz Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :3339

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The Portion Of Labor - Chapter 55

Chapter LV

On the day after the strike Ellen went to McGuire's and to Briggs's, the two other factories in Rowe, to see if she could obtain a position; but she was not successful. McGuire had discharged some of his employes, reducing his force to its smallest possible limits, since he had fewer orders, and was trying in that way to avert the necessity of a cut in wages, and a strike or shut-down. McGuire's was essentially a union factory, as was Briggs's. Ellen would have found in either case difficulty about obtaining employment, because she did not belong to the union, if for no other reason. At Briggs's she encountered the proprietor himself in the office, and he dismissed her with a bluff, almost brutal, peremptoriness which hurt her cruelly, although she held up her head high as she left. Briggs turned to a foreman who was standing by before she was well out of hearing.

"I like that!" he said. "Mrs. Briggs read about that girl in the paper last night, and the strike wouldn't have been on at Lloyd's if it hadn't been for her. I would as soon take a lighted match into a powder-magazine."

The foreman grinned. "She's a pretty, mild-looking thing," he said; "doesn't look as if she could say boo to a goose."

"That's all you can tell," returned Briggs. "Deliver me from a light-complexioned woman. They're all the very devil. Mrs. Briggs says it's the same girl that read that composition that made such a stir at the high-school exhibition. She'd make more trouble in a factory than a dozen ordinary girls, and just now, when everything is darned ticklish-looking."

"That's so," assented the foreman, "and all the more because she's good-looking."

"I don't know what you call good-looking," returned Briggs.

He had two daughters, built upon the same heavy lines as himself and wife, and he adored them. Insensibly he regarded all more delicate feminine beauty as a disparagement of theirs. As Briggs spoke, the foreman seemed to see in the air before his eyes the faces of the two Briggs girls, large and massive, and dull of hue, the feminine counterpart of their father's.

"Well, maybe you're right," said he, evasively. "I suppose some might call her good-looking."

As he spoke he glanced out of the window at Ellen's retreating figure, moving away over the snow-path with an almost dancing motion of youth and courage, though she was sorely hurt. The girl had scarcely ever had a hard word said to her in her whole life, for she had been in her humble place a petted darling. She had plenty of courage to bear the hard words now, but they cut deeply into her unseasoned heart.

Ellen went on past the factories to the main street of Rowe. She had no idea of giving up her efforts to obtain employment. She said to herself that she must have work. She thought of the stores, that possibly she might obtain a chance to serve as a sales-girl in one of them. She actually began at the end of the long street, and worked her way through it, with her useless inquiries, facing proprietors and superintendents, but with no success. There was not a vacancy in more than one or two, and there they wished only experienced hands. She found out that her factory record told against her. The moment she admitted that she had worked in a factory the cold shoulder was turned. The position of a shop-girl was so far below that of a sales-lady that the effect upon the superintendent was almost as if he had met an unworthy aspirant to a throne. He would smile insultingly and incredulously, even as he regarded her.

"You would find that our goods are too fine to handle after leather. Have you tried all the shops?"

At last Ellen gave that up, and started homeward. She paused once as she came opposite an intelligence office. There was one course yet open to her, but from that she shrank, not on her own account, but she dared not--knowing what would be the sufferings of her relatives should she do so--apply for a position as a servant.

As for herself, strained as she was to her height of youthful enthusiasm for a great cause, as she judged it to be, clamping her feet to the topmost round of her ladder of difficulty, she would have essayed any honest labor with no hesitation whatever. But she thought of her father and mother and grandmother, and went on past the intelligence office.

When she came to her old school-teacher's--Miss Mitchell's--house, she paused and hesitated a moment, then she went up the little path between the snow-banks to the front door, and rang the bell. The door was opened before the echoes had died away. Miss Mitchell had seen her coming, and hastened to open it. Miss Mitchell had not been teaching school for some years, having retired on a small competency of her savings. Her mortgage was paid, and there was enough for herself and her mother to live upon, with infinite care as to details of expenditure. Every postage-stamp and car-fare had its important part in the school-teacher's system of economy; but she was quite happy, and her large face wore an expression of perfect peace and placidity.

She was a woman who was not tortured by any strong, ungratified desires. Her allotment of the gifts of the gods quite satisfied her.

When Ellen entered the rather stuffy sitting-room--for Miss Mitchell and her mother were jealous of any breath of cold air after the scanty fire was kindled--it was like entering into a stratum of peace. It seemed quite removed from the turmoil of her own life. The school-teacher's old mother sat in her rocker close to the stove, stouter than ever, filling up her chair with those wandering curves and vague outlines which only the over-fleshy human form can assume. She looked as indefinite as a quivering jelly until one reached her face. That wore a fixedness of amiability which accentuated the whole like a high light. She had not seen Ellen for a long time, and she greeted her with delight.

"Bless your heart!" said she, in her sweet, throaty, husky voice. "Go and get her some of them cookies, Fanny, do." The old woman's faculties were not in the least impaired, although she was very old, neither had her hands lost their cunning, for she still retained her skill in cookery, and prepared the simple meals for herself and daughter, seated in a high chair at the kitchen table to roll out pastry or the famous little cookies which Ellen remembered along with her childhood.

There was something about these cookies which Miss Mitchell presently brought to her in a pretty china plate, with a little, fine-fringed napkin, which was like a morsel of solace to the girl. With the first sweet crumble of the cake on her plate, she wished to cry. Sometimes the rush of old, kindly, tender associations will overcome one who is quite equal to the strain of present emergency. But she did not cry; she ate her cookies, and confided to Miss Mitchell and her mother her desire to obtain a position elsewhere, since her factory-work had failed her. It had occurred to her that possibly Miss Mitchell, who was on the school-board, might know of a vacancy in a primary school for the coming spring term, and that she might obtain it.

"I think I know enough to teach a primary school," Ellen said.

"Of course you do, bless your heart," said old Mrs. Mitchell. "She knows enough to teach any kind of a school, don't she, Fanny? You get her a school, dear, right away."

But Miss Mitchell knew of no probable vacancy, since one young woman who had expected to be married had postponed her marriage on account of the strike in Lloyd's, and the consequent throwing out of employment of her sweetheart. Then, also, Miss Mitchell owned with hesitation, in response to Ellen's insistent question, that she supposed that the fact that she had worked in a shop might in any case interfere with her obtaining a position in a school.

"There is no sense in it, dear child, I know," she said, "but it might be so."

"Yes, I supposed so," replied Ellen, bitterly. "They would all say that a shop-girl had no right to try to teach school. Well, I'm much obliged to you, Miss Mitchell."

"What are you going to do?" Miss Mitchell asked, anxiously, following her to the door.

"I'm going to Mrs. Doty, to get some of the wrappers that mother works on, until something else turns up," replied Ellen.

"It seems a pity."

Ellen smiled bravely. "Beggars mustn't be choosers," she said. "If we can only keep along, somehow, I don't care."

There came a vehement pound of a stick on the floor, for that was the way the old woman in the sitting-room commanded attention. Miss Mitchell opened the door on a crack, that she might not let in the cold air.

"What is it, mother?" she said.

"You get Ellen a school right away, Fanny."

"All right, mother; I'll do my best."

"Get her the grammar-school you used to have."

"All right, mother."

There was something about the imperative solicitude of the old woman which comforted Ellen in spite of its futility as she went on her way. The good-will of another human soul, even when it cannot be resolved into active benefits, has undoubtedly a mighty force of its own. Ellen, with the sweet of the cookies still lingering on her tongue, and the sweet of the old woman's kindness in her soul, felt refreshed as if by some subtle spiritual cake and wine. She even went to the door of Mrs. Doty's house. Mrs. Doty was the woman who let out wrappers to her impecunious neighbors with an undaunted heart. She had no difficulty there. The demand for cheap wrappers was not on the wane, even in the hard times. When Ellen reached her grandmother's house, with a great parcel under her arm, Mrs. Zelotes opened her side door.

"What have you got there, Ellen Brewster?" she called out sharply.

"Some wrappers," replied Ellen, cheerfully.

"Are you going to work on wrappers?"

"Yes, grandma."

The door was shut with a loud report.

When Ellen entered the house and the sitting-room, her mother looked up from a pink wrapper which she was finishing.

"What have you got there?" she demanded.

"Some wrappers."

"Why, I haven't finished the last lot."

"These are for me to make, mother."

Andrew got up and went out of the room. Fanny shut her mouth hard, and drew her thread through with a jerk.

"Well," she said, in a second, "take off your things, and let me show you how to start on them. There's a little knack about it."

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